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From the Field

Montreal’s Alleyways: A Laboratory for Democratic Life

The participation of a city’s inhabitants in democratic life begins with forms of everyday sociability and commitment to the common good. The alleyways of Montreal—where communities of neighbors and citizens have developed—are an eloquent example of this.

There is a very specific, even emblematic, urban feature in Montreal: the alleyway. Hidden behind the row houses whose backyards they run along, they have been cleared, rebuilt, embellished, and greened by the residents of the neighborhoods they pass through for the past 10 years or so. [1] To say that they have been “appropriated” would be inaccurate: rather, local residents qualify them as a common resource and a place where a community is formed: a community of neighbors and of citizens.

Since 2008, I have taken advantage of every stay in Montreal to explore these alleyways. During my last visit, in June 2019, I conducted a small survey of passersby, residents, and other individuals who have played a pioneering role in their transformation. In the manner of an object lesson, these discussions took place in the alleyways themselves, with discussions ranging from uses to buildings, from the typology and morphology of this urban ensemble to architectural details, from mineral to vegetable, and from informal practices to institutions. By linking this field exploration to my reflections on the social uses of urban space and their political significance, I will present here certain aspects of this “alleyways movement” which seems to me exemplary—not as a model to be replicated, but as a source of inspiration for the realization of an ideal, namely the active participation of individuals in the social and political life of the groups from which they derive their values and genuine livelihood opportunities.

All photographs © Joëlle Zask.

A specific historic and geographical context

The alleyways have been part of the urban plan of the city of Montreal since the 1890s. From this period until about 1930, the city created 475 km (295 miles) of them in a dozen central districts, mostly French-speaking. They were generally laid out in “T” shapes (or double-ended “T” shapes), and stretch between the rows of houses that border them, parallel to the main thoroughfares.

The vocation of oasis, garden or urban park that we attribute to them today is not the one that prevailed initially: originally conceived as service roads, they became crowded with garbage cans, cars, waste of all kinds, or even abandoned. They were typically poorly lit and dirty, and did not feel particularly safe at night, although in the daytime children would often play there.

First between 1980 and 1986, as a result of Operations Tournesol (“Sunflower”) and Place au Soleil (“Make Way for the Sun”), launched by Jean Drapeau’s municipal administration, and now at a rate that has accelerated over the past 10 years, this time as a result of citizens’ initiatives, alleyways have been redeveloped into living spaces that are to the neighborhood what gardens are to individual houses. Through pedestrianization, the installation of collective facilities, the organization of events on a neighborhood scale, by a common administration or via the establishment of a collective work agenda, the alleyways are now coming out of the shadows. But it is above all their “greening” that, in the contemporary context of global heating—which is more noticeable in Montreal than in many European cities—has contributed to their redevelopment. In the borough of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, 74 of them have received the Ruelles Vertes (“Green Alleyways”) label, along with over 100 laneways in the borough of Rosemont–La Petite‑Patrie.

The alleyways are concrete urban components that offer concrete possibilities for activation. They can be described neither as spaces “without qualities” (empty, interstitial or neglected space) nor as imagined, transgressed or fantasized spaces. It seems that it is not the greening practices that have made the alleyway but rather the alleyway as a singular urban form that has allowed new uses. Those who invest in them today have not created them: they have developed them. To develop means both to occupy and to take care of these spaces, maintaining them and looking after them. In contrast to appropriation, occupation implies preserving the place concerned, not disposing of it as one pleases. The combination of “occupying” and “taking care of” leads to the development of ways of being and acting that prefigure and configure a new order of social life.

From socialization to sociability

In the alleyways a particular kind of life develops. It is first of all about socialization. Many of the people we met talk about “living environment” or “public park.” Children play there, which is an irreplaceable way of educating people to coexist. Playing outdoors allows for the integration of the outside world into social interactions with its plants, buildings, nooks and crannies and accidents, as many spaces of exploration that the children, thanks to their imagination, explore endlessly. From psychologists George Herbert Mead and Donald Winnicott to advocates of progressive education, the play, as opposed to entertainment, has been described as the breeding ground on which both subjective and social personalities grow—the face as well as “the face,” so well defined by sociologist Erving Goffman (1973).

Neighborly relations can be conflictual, even frightening. But the actors of the alleyway movement fight against this tendency, frequently becoming the best friends in the world. Most of the thirty or so people I met testify to this. After socialization comes sociability. In the alleyway, a space of face-to-face relations is formed, in contrast to the big city, whose modus operandi is most often based on forced gestures and movements, a certain isolation, impersonal relations and civilities reduced to respect for the rules in force.

Sociability is a basic fact of social life. It is, according to Georg Simmel (1981) for example, what without it social life is simply aggregative, mechanical, devoid of any specifically human characteristic. The alleyway is a real “placottoir [2] or parklet: a place where people can settle down to chat at their ease. Like the street corner or the café—which, according to Gabriel Tarde (1989), a sociologist of ordinary conversation and contemporary of Simmel, were the safest bulwark against political absolutism—they are places to talk. They are also places where neighborhood parties, alleyway dinners, cocktail hours, games, and concerts are organized. There are collections, cookouts, planting and beautification of all kinds. In addition, maintenance work is also carried out, such as raking up dead leaves, clearing snow in winter, and cleaning or repairing communal furniture.

The local residents form a de facto society, defined by co‑presence. But the experience of the alleyway allows the transformation of this society into a neighborhood community—so important in the history of sociological theories of the last century, which contrasted it to the indirect relations of the city, the seat of the Great Society. With the neighborhood, copresence is converted into coexistence, which finds in the alleyway more than a site or a theater of operations, a place of exercise that it helps to “produce,” to use Henri Lefebvre”s expression. With its layout, the distance between the houses, its protected location, its lengthening, the calm it offers in relation to the urban space, and its sheltered appearance, the alleyway is convertible into a shared space that is such only because, voluntarily, on an equal footing, without hierarchy or exclusion, the people concerned ensure its freedom of access and maintenance.

With the alleyway thus develops an organization that is decisive for sociability in general as well as for democratic lifestyles: the one that in turn allows people to associate and separate. Between the private, public and semi-public spaces that line the alleyway, porous boundaries are formed—such as a backyard wide open to it, basketball baskets available to all, apartments overlooking the outside landings and metal fire escapes connected to the ground by the plants. Individual housing is to the alleyway what the plot is to the shared garden: an opportunity to conduct experiments that, while in first person, are largely shareable (Zask 2016).

From alleyway sociability to politically active “citizens’ groups”

From sociability to the political community, it’s only a step. Of course, nothing can be taken for granted. On the one hand, conflicts arise (especially over cars) to which solutions must be found. In order to deal with the addicts to the car, but also with the free riders who enjoy the benefits of the common resource without contributing to it, or with other sources of nuisance, a minimal political organization is required.

On the other hand, participation in social life engaged by face-to-face neighborhood relations is a school of democratic life—this is an essential aspect of the continuum between sociability and citizenship, defended in particular by Dewey. This participation is the starting point for a process of horizontal politicization that mobilizes the phases of consultation, “consultation,” engagement, cooperation and joint reflection that are characteristic of political democracy, but avoiding the pitfalls of representation that would deprive citizens of their initiatives and the circumstances through which they can experience the consequences.

These processes of politicization sometimes last for years. Following them in detail would lead to a complete picture of local democratic life, bottom-up but transposable to other contexts. For at the center of the enterprise is the formation of a key social union: the “citizens’ groups.” The latter investigate to determine their chances of rehabilitating the alleyway they are involved in, study its history, identify it, link it to other cases, enter into relationships with each other, try to agree on the desirable action, try to convince recalcitrant people, etc.

These “citizens’ groups” are not stable “collectives”: they rely on the commitment of individuals who, without sacrificing their individuality, access public life through their cooperation in favor of a common work. Their modus operandi is self-government: at the beginning of the process, there are people who look for each other, find each other, decide together on the future of their ideally shareable living space and the scope they wish to give to their movement. As Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville and later John Dewey showed, this phase of self-government is just as vital for “political democracy” (with which it is not confused) as the phase of sociability is essential to the advent of a specifically human society, distinct from a society of sheep or bacteria, for example.

Another important point is that citizens organize conversations, they say, not debates, public discussions or negotiations. The latter are indeed the methods, not of participatory democracy, but of representative democracy—that which prescribes the public use of a critical individual reason in the face of the powers that be and the mechanisms of political domination. In the alleyway, the stakes, which have the force of proposition, are elsewhere. The citizens concerned periodically go to the “conversation” during which they consolidate their union and plan actions. Through the conversation, they get in touch and enjoy the company, while exchanging ideas and making plans. For these people who act upstream of institutions, the main objective is not to oppose, counter, or stipulate a method of conflict resolution. Rather, it is to avoid conflict.

The use of the popular initiative system and the “placotoire” gives the whole company a democratic and civic tone, including with regard to public authorities which, such as the borough mayor, the municipality, and sometimes the ministerial level of Quebec, are ultimately important interlocutors. Echoing the democratic logic of reconstructing “publics” (Dewey 2010), citizens’ groups exercise a right of initiative to call on governments to make their contribution, to ratify agreed procedures and rules, to grant the necessary authorizations and to prosecute offenders.

For example, conciliation is necessary to obtain authorization to close the alleyway to motorized traffic, to encroach on the public highway with plant or movable elements such as benches, plant containers, equipment, or to obtain the “green alleyway” label—which is accompanied by material assistance from the town hall: de‑asphalting, financing up to 500 dollars, delivery of bags of earth and sometimes plants. As time goes by, the public authorities, gradually educated in contact with the missions entrusted to them, take initiatives in their turn, for example by hiring municipal gardeners who green this or that neglected alleyway to encourage residents to do the same. This is how a leaflet is created between citizen groups on a variable scale (alleyway chat operation, alleyway committees, city green committees, friends of the field of possibilities) and government public institutions (borough eco-neighbourhood, urban ecology program, Place au soleil program, federal ecoaction program, etc.).

Loved by proud Montrealers, the alleyways are at the intersection of politicization processes, which concern the entire population all the more since they mobilize both “ordinary” citizens and various strata of the public administration, including health, sports, city and environmental services. The objectives of sustainable development, active childhood, the greening of housing and lifestyles, education and solidarity are combined in forms that can easily be transposed elsewhere.

Set back from conventional public space, alleyways can create a public place

The shared alleyway is the result of the creation of a quite singular public space that offers a source of inspiration for rethinking “the right to the city” and the concrete production of common spaces. Two aspects are particularly striking.

First, there is the combination of a space that is clearly defined, by the houses that border it, and its universal accessibility, encouraged by an active hospitality that is reinforced by the proliferation of seats and the provision of books, toys, tools and even food in fridges accessible to all. Unlike a vast hollowed-out space that tends to suck people in while controlling their movements, the alleyway discreetly invites you in, attracts you and offers itself to you as a gift. But it is also the antithesis of closed residential enclaves (gated communities). While vehicular access may be prohibited, this is never the case for walkers, who sometimes stroll along it, sometimes sit down there in search of a cool spot to read or to have a bite to eat during their lunch break. Moreover, the group of citizens responsible for the alleyway is by no means restricted to residents who back immediately on to the alleyway. It is accessible to all neighborhood residents within a perimeter defined by agreed rules.

As for the second aspect, this resides in the fact that alleyways are public spaces dissociated from the regime of ostentation and visibility presupposed by the usual theories that depend upon appearing or “appearing in public,” on a process of visibility, on the right to “be seen without shame” and to be “recognized” with its “differences,” as well as transparency, monstration, demonstration—on this edifying appearance of power that Walter Benjamin has described as the aestheticization of politics, designating the set of devices that tend to transform politics into “theatercracy,” public places into a space for spectacle, and the citizen into a spectator of power. The alleyway is an active refutation of the spectator’s relationship to the world that seems characteristic of contemporary uses of the concept of public space. This relationship can suit all political regimes, including the worst. But it is contrary to the spirit of democracy.

In contrast to façadism, the alignment of trees or buildings, the desire to construct national monuments, the attraction for centrality and roundabouts, the geometrization of public spaces—which expresses the illusory belief in an original alliance between social organization and the universal laws of nature, the alleyway, located at the back of the houses, may be hidden, but it is nonetheless the backbone of the residential neighborhood, providing its articulation, circulation and organic balance. Although relatively hidden, it forms a democratic public space, that is, so to speak, chemically pure: a space that can be more accurately characterized as a “public place” if by place we mean the spaces born “out of the grassroots” from the interaction between a specific environment and various uses; and if, by “public,” we mean all citizens who are not spectators but actors of their living conditions and their shared experiences.


  • Dewey, J. 2010 [1927]. Le Public et ses problèmes, translation and introduction by J. Zask, Paris: Gallimard, “Folio Essais” series.
  • Emerson, R. W. 1836. Essays, chap. 1, “Nature”.
  • Goffman, E. 1973 [1959]. La Mise en scène de la vie quotidienne, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, “Le Sens commun” series.
  • Simmel, G. 1981. Sociologie et épistémologie, Paris: Presses Universitares de France.
  • Tarde, G. 1989 [1901]. L’Opinion et la foule, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Zask, J. 2016. La Démocratie aux champs, Paris: La Découverte, “Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond” series.

Further reading

  • Bah, M. B., Montpetit, N. and Octeau, S. 2018. “La ruelle verte : un patrimoine du commun où déployer une éducation à l’inclusion”, Éducation relative à l’environnement [online], vol. 14‑2.
  • Kelly, C. 2014. Montréal en ruelles. Le récit de l’appropriation du lieu par les résidents de Rosemont-la Petite-Patrie, unpublished master of arts (MA) thesis in ethnology and heritage, Université Laval, Québec City.
  • Mazoyer, A. 2018. Analyse sociologique de l’émergence du phénomène des ruelles vertes sur l’île de Montréal, master’s thesis in sociology, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal.
  • Poulot, M.‑L. 2015. “Visites et promenades urbaines : un moyen de s’approprier la ville ? Vers la ville citoyenne, le cas de Montréal”, in S’approprier la ville. Le devenir-ensemble, du patrimoine urbain aux paysages culturels, Montreal: Presses de l’Université du Québec, “Patrimoine Urbain” series, pp. 307–326.
  • Regroupement des écoquartiers, thesis///report submitted as part of the City of Montreal’s public consultation on the urban sports and open-air///outdoors action plan (Consultation publique sur le plan d’action du plan sport et plein air urbains de la ville de Montréal), presented to the City of Montreal on 1 May 2018.
  • Zask, J. 2018. Quand la place devient publique, Lormont: Le Bord de l’Eau, “Les Voies du politique” series

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To cite this article:

Joëlle Zask & translated by Oliver Waine, “Montreal’s Alleyways: A Laboratory for Democratic Life”, Metropolitics, 12 February 2021. URL :

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